The Highlands is an area that runs from the town of Greenock on the West coast and Dundee on the East coast to the northern Scottish coast. It takes in everything from East to West, excluding the Speyside region (which is the subject for another article.)
This is one of the most complex regions of Scotch whisky production. The region could be split into 3 sub-regions – Western Highland, Northern Highland and Southern Highland.
History of Highland Whisky Production
The history of Highland whisky production was radically different from the Lowland production. Highland distilleries were usually very small affairs with local local farmers distilling their own whiskies and then sometimes joining cooperatives. But everything was done on a small scale. In fact Highland production accounted for less than 10%, of whisky production. However Highland whiskies were much better than their Lowland sisters. Therefore they were more expensive. Today the Highlands produces some of the finest examples of Scotch whisky.
1. Northern Highland Whiskies
This is the area between Nairn and John ‘O Groats. Most of the distilleries in this region are found on the coast and so there is a distinct salinity to them. Northern Highland whiskies tend to be stronger on the palate. A whisky taster will find hints of heather and spice combined with a light peaty, smokiness.
Northern Highland Distilleries.
Glenmorangie. Situated in the town on Tain, this distillery produces high quality highland whisky. It boasts the highest still in Scottish whisky production. It started in 1738 when the production of alcohol started at the Morangie farm. Water is sourced from the nearby Tarlogie springs and local barley is used. It produces some 6,000,000 litres of whisky a year. The whisky is matured in ex-bourbon casks. They produce a special Cellar 13 whisky. This is matured in a warehouse near the sea and inherits the distinctive characteristics of the warehouses location. It is run by the Sixteen Men of Tain – the 16 men who work through the year to produce the whiksy.
Dalmore. Not far from Tain is the town of Alness, where Dalmore is produced. It takes it’s water from the River Alness. The single malts produced are distinctly heavy and ‘oily’ and mature well in European oak casks.The barley is sourced locally. The only other ingredient, apart from barley and water is yeast. Dalmore has developed a single strain of yeast which produces a very rich and fruity ‘beer’ from which the spirit is distilled. The whiksies have a rich mahogany flavour with a complex aftertaste.
Old Pulteney. Located in the town of Pulteneytown near Wick, Old Pulteney can claim to be the most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland. It is located on the coast and the strong North Sea winds add to the distinct flavour of this high quality single malt. It is described as a dry whisky with a hint of sea air. They produce the standard 12 year old single malt and various editions of a 15 year old malt. It is used in Ballantine blends.
2. Southern Highland Whiskies.
Whisky from the southern highlands is usually more gentle in flavour, but still retains the peaty flavour that are characteristic of Scotch whisky. The whiskies generally have a fragrant and flowery, but soft, sweet taste.
Southern Highland Distilleries.
Dalwhinnie. There is some discussion if this is a Highland or Speyside whisky. As there is so many distilleries in Speyside to talk about, I’ve classed Dalwhinnie in the Southern Highland region. In a village of the same name is the Dalwhinnie distillery. This is truly in the heart of the Highlands and it the highest distillery in Scotland. Water is sourced from local spring water and there is an abundance of local peat from the surrounding bogs. Although this is a famous brand (being one of the Six Classic Malts) only about 10% of the produced whisky is sold as single malt. The rest is used in blends, most notably Black & White blends.
Edradour. Being the smallest distillery in Scotland this produces a unique and rare whisky with only 90,000 litres being produced annually. Because of this it can be quite hard to find. If you do, then it is well worth purchasing it. This distillery is the last ‘farm’ distillery. The local mountain water adds to it’s unique depth and flavour. It’s a very smooth whisky, with just a hint of smokiness. There is no automation at this distillery and because of it’s size, it could be the smallest distillery (legal) in the world. The distillery is the only place where you are guaranteed to find a bottle of this malt.
Deanston. Situated on the banks of the River Teith this is a relatively new distillery. The river Teith is the source of the water and is considered one of the purest rivers in Scotland. The river is also the source of the electricity used to for the distillation process. It used to be a weaving shed, but in 1965 started whisky production. Only unpeated malted barley is used and this results in a light, nutty but malty single malt. It is the main ingredient in the Scottish Leader blend, which is known around the world.
3. Western Highland Region.
Moving west in the Highland region we find that whiskies produced here are more robust in character than other Highland whiskies. They are more peaty and have well-rounded flavours, with a smooth taste. However there are only a few distilleries left there.
Western Highland Distilleries.
Oban. Probably the most well known of from the Western Highland region. The distillery, which is in the town of Oban pre-dates the town. It has the classic ‘West-Highland’ flavour which is between the smoky peaty whiskies of the islands and the lighter sweeter malts of the Highlands. It is one of the Six Classic Single Malts. So it is well known worldwide.
Ben Nevis. Situated at the foot of Britain’s tallest mountain is the Ben Nevis distillery. The water is sources from the Allt a’Mhuilinn which originate from two pools in the mountains. It used to be a major producer, but it less well-known now. However it produces an excellent single malt. It uses a Coffer still in it’s production an so is one of the few distilleries to produce both malt and grain whiskies. It is the major whisky in the Long John blend.
The Highland region produces some excellent examples of Scotch whiskies. There are many flavours and aromas to enjoy from the salty whiskies of the north east to the light peaty ones in the west. So look for a good whisky shop or online whisky exchange and you can examine the different ones from the Highland region.